Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Future of the Science/Religion Conflict

I’ve always been amazed by the amount of controversy regarding evolution.   Evolution is probably the most important and powerful concept to come out of science and it is central to our increasing understanding of the natural world.  But, frustrating as it is for defenders of science, it is a brute fact that a huge number of people feel evolution and other well-founded scientific theories are in opposition to their personal values and/or religious beliefs.  What I want to do in this post is present an optimistic vision of how the cultural divide epitomized by the evolution wars might be reduced in the years to come.  The solution lies in the expansion and richening of the scientific worldview.
Let me offer a crude sketch of the worldview typically associated with science in our culture today.  The universe consists of bits of inanimate matter moving in a vacuum of space.  Any large object or system can be understood by breaking it down into these small bits and analyzing their interaction.   It all got started in a big bang (somehow), and since then has evolved in a mechanistic way.  Human beings are part of the system and our lives are therefore also completely determined by mechanism.
To the extent that folks believe science is irrevocably committed to this worldview, it is understandable that there would be a big disconnect.  It isn’t only a question of this worldview conflicting with specific religious beliefs.  People of all backgrounds and beliefs intuitively sense that it is an incomplete picture of our reality.
Here’s the good news.  The worldview I sketched may have been consistent with Newton’s model of classical physics, but it certainly misses the richness of science in terms of where it is today and where it’s going.  Specifically, in solving some of the mysteries currently at hand, science can offer an expanded (but still naturalistic) worldview which both improves its explanatory power and also closes the gap with some of our intuitions about reality.  In turn, this will lead to greater cultural consensus.
While I can’t know in detail how things will develop, here is a list of some current issues facing science, the resolution of which I believe should lead toward an improved and more unifying worldview.  It would be great if any readers could add to this list.
1.     Unifying quantum mechanics with the rest of science.  As is well known, the mechanistic worldview breaks down when scientists analyze the subatomic domain.   Quantum mechanics implies probabilistic causality, wave/particle duality, and non-local interaction.  So far there has been a disjunction between quantum physics and the rest of science which has prevented these features of the theory from penetrating into the cultural perception of the scientific take on reality.  As physicists make progress toward integrating quantum mechanics into a theory which also describes the macroscopic and cosmological scales, it seems reasonable to expect some of the implications of quantum theory to become a foundational aspect of all of science.  In turn, this may help explain some phenomena which are hard to understand through a reductionist, mechanistic analysis.
2.     Improving upon the original Big Bang theory.  When most of us first heard of the Big Bang it was described as follows:  the universe, including the dimensions of space and time themselves, originated in an infinitely dense, infinitely small point (a singularity), which expanded to form our universe.  This idea of an emergence from a singularity seemed to have little to recommend it over non-scientific conceptions of creation.  Now, if one reads the literature further, you find that this conception of a singularity is apparently ruled out by quantum physics.  It seems as likely that our observable universe arose from some pre-existing reality.  Some physicists now postulate that we could be part of a “multi-verse”.   An improved theory of origin will aid the development of an even more compelling worldview.
3.     Accounting for the one directional “arrow of time” in physics.  Our experience of the flow of time is not captured well by current physical theories, most of which are time-symmetric.  While the second law of thermodynamics has time-directionality, it is not incorporated into more fundamental physics or to a theory of cosmological origin.  If scientists can uncover evidence for the flow of time as a necessary outgrowth of more fundamental laws, that would be a meaningful advance.
4.     Integrating “complexity theory” more completely into the rest of science.  As a layperson, I have been exposed to the concepts of “dynamical non-linear systems”, “dissipative systems”, “chaos” theory, “self-organizing systems”, etc. It seems that science has improved its toolkit for understanding natural systems which exhibit some remarkable phenomena.  For example, simple algorithms can yield complicated, yet ordered outcomes.  Higher order features of a system can emerge which could not be predicted from a reductive analysis of component parts (the parts seem to “know” what role they should play in the larger system).  Jumbled pieces can appear to spontaneously assemble into a new organization.  While I know part of the problem is my own limited knowledge of this topic, it seems as if this type of systems analysis is not integrated into more fundamental theories of physics.  If it could be, it would foster the development of a richer cultural conception of the scientific worldview.
5.     Incorporating first-person experience into the scientific worldview.  (A “big one”, in my view).   Science proceeds by adopting an objective, or third-person, stance toward natural phenomena.  One simulates objectivity by carefully examining data using methods which lead to repeatable results which can be validated by others.  The one empirical fact which cannot be analyzed in this way is first-person experience itself.  As I have commented on at greater length before, a modification of the scientific worldview will be required to include subjective experience as a fundamental feature of reality.  This will lead to an expanded but still naturalistic perspective which offers a more fitting home for humanity. 


Tom C said...

Yes, you've certainly put your finger on some interesting areas where science 'has scope for further progress' - but I think it's optimistic to hope that this will help much over evolution.

The motivation of creationist diehards is, to be honest, rather obscure to me. The method used to create the world does not seem to be an essential point of faith in itself: surely not something you would go to hell for being mistaken about?

Steve said...

I agree with your point on the method of creation. From what I read lately, the point of greatest conflict has moved on from creationism per se to arguments against evolution in favor of "intelligent design". Here the motivation seems to be to try to defend the possibility of ad hoc divine action in our world, whereas a naturalistic worldview wouldn't include this.

Stepping back from speculating about what is motivating specific arguments from creationists or ID'ists, I am thinking that there is a cultural undercurrent of resistance to scientific naturalism which gives currency to these efforts. This undercurrent is based on a perception that scientific explanations promote a sterile clockwork worldview which drains meaning from life. I don't think this has to follow from natuaralism at all. A naturalistic world can be seen as meaningful - even vibrant and enchanting. Hopefully, this perspective will catch on.

Anonymous said...

The problem with "first person" science is that even in the case of introspection (or more obviously: revelation), "how it seems to us" is not always "how it really is."

For example, consider the fact that you seem to experience your entire visual field in color, yet many simple experiments demonstrate that color perception is only possible in a relatively narrow cone of vision.

Our first person "experiences" are no more infallible than our third person experiences. For more on why this is see:

That we believe that we have experiences ("ineffable" or otherwise) is not in dispute. That they really represent what they intuitively "seem" to us to represent, is in dispute.

Steve said...

I concur with your point about the fallibility of the contents of introspection. My point is focused on the fact that the very existence of subjective experience is absent from the prevailing scientific paradigm.

Steve said...

Let me clarify: I acknowledge that few deny the existence of experience in everyday conversation. It's the formal "bracketing" or exclusion from scientfic methodology I'm referring to. See Dennett's heterophenomenology as an example of how he works this out.

Anonymous said...

It is a curious fact, of course, that our scientific knowledge and measurements, our external world and all its manifold things, are all known to us through consciousness.

We don't really know what's going on, at the most basic levels, but it is clear that the creationist view is just too simplistic, and frankly, stupid, to have any explanatory power. Its proponents cleave to it because they fear an amoral universe even more than they fear hell.

I have said elsewhere that the only way evolution may not be happening is if time does not exist; and some physicists say it may not! See
But that doesn't really help the creationist viewpoint. 'Intelligent Design' implies a designer, but scientists have discovered that complexity can self-organize in many ways.
For more on these lines, see my lengthy comment at

Steve said...

Thanks. I will check it out.